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What is the Bureau of Indian Affairs?

By J. Beam
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is a United States federal government agency operating under the Department of the Interior. Its intended purpose is the administration and management of land held in trust for American Indians and to provide education services to American Indians. The bureau has officially existed since 1824, and was originally called the Office of Indian Affairs. At the time of the official formation of the agency, it was a division of the US Department of War, but was switched to the Department of the Interior in 1849 and has been operating under the current name since 1947.

Before the development of an official agency, similar offices existed in early American history. Prior to the Revolutionary War, government officials were tasked with developing and managing relationships and treaties with Indian chiefs and tribes to ensure neutrality during the war. From the official inception of the Office of Indian Affairs to the current day bureau, the agency and its adapted roles have come into question many times.

Throughout the history of the bureau, the roles the office plays have evolved to include management of all aspects of reservation life. The agency’s ability to scrupulously manage and administer its duties has been evaluated under scrutiny on several occasions. At one point, it was suggested that the Bureau of Indian Affairs operate as an independent government agency rather than as a division of the Department of the Interior, but as of 2007, no progress towards that achievement had been made.

The agency's website was actively shut down in 2001 due to the ongoing Cobell Litigation, the largest continuing class action lawsuit against the United States government, which began in 1996 as Cobell v. Babbitt. The litigation contends that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, operating as a division of the Department of the Interior mismanaged the accounting of assets held in trust for the American Indians.

Currently, there are several offices within the Bureau of Indian Affairs including Law Enforcement Services, Economic Development, and Facilities Management and Construction. Many laws pertaining to the relationship between the agency and the tribal governments of various American Indian reservations are ambiguous. The final outcome of the Cobell Litigation remains to be seen, though a court order was issued that requires accounting records pertaining to the trust in question be presented in January 2008.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Discussion Comments
By anon49188 — On Oct 18, 2009

Currently Elouise Cobell and her counterpart litigants in this historical suit are waiting on the response of the Supreme Appellate court to issue a ruling for or against the allocation of millions of dollars owed to native americans from fraudulent transactions to filtering indian land, timber, and mineral royalties into the government's own greedy pocket.

By anon5659 — On Dec 03, 2007

what are the major activities now?

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